• Weird History

What If Mount Vesuvius Erupted Again?

Looming over Naples, Italy, Mount Vesuvius is a monument to its own destructive past. It's also a sleeping giant that threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who live and work around its base. When the volcano famously erupted in 79 CE, it utterly wiped out the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum - as well as the populations that lived there. Writing about the event with both awe and horror, Pliny the Younger gave history the first-ever eye-witness account of a volcanic eruption.

Since 79 CE, the volcano has erupted 30 times. The most notable of these later eruptions occurred in 1631 and may have resulted in as many as 6,000 casualties. The most recent was in 1944, when Vesuvius launched debris into the air and claimed the lives of 26 people. However, none of those quakes came close to the power of the famous eruption, or the apocalyptic eruptions of the distant past.

The truly frightening thing about Vesuvius is that, based on geological research, it has reached its due date. When the volcano finally erupts, it may blow with the force of several hundred atomic detonations. So, what if Vesuvius erupted today? Here's a look at what that would mean for the people of Naples, Europe, and the world as a whole.

  • The Volcano Could Release A Superheated Pyroclastic Surge

    Photo: SingALittle / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    When people think of the destruction caused by a volcano, they probably imagine rolling waves of red hot magma burning the landscape and melting the homes and people in its path. However, most of the destruction caused by volcanoes comes from pyroclastic flows and surges.

    Unlike magma, which typically moves at a slower speed due to its viscosity, pyroclastic surges are ground-hugging clouds of superheated ash and toxic gases that can move at nearly 200 miles per hour - and instantly burn any living thing in their path.

    When Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, scientists believe it produced six separate - and devastating - pyroclastic surges. "Temperatures outdoors - and indoors - rose up to 300°C [570°F] and more, enough to [end] hundreds of people in a fraction of a second," volcanologist Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo of the Italian National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology explained to National Geographic News.

  • Superheated Ash Would Preserve Victims For Future Generations

    Photo: Vesuvius National Park / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Given the intense heat of pyroclastic surges, and the tens of thousands of people who live on or near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius's cone, there is a high likelihood that residents would be engulfed, flash-fried, and blanketed in solidifying ash - perfectly recording their final posture.

    Intense pyroclastic flows rolled over the city of Pompeii in 79 CE, slaying thousands and encasing their corpses. When archeologists began excavating the site in the 1800s, they found not only skeletons but also voids in the compacted, solidified ash surrounding them. By pouring plaster of Paris into the voids, researchers were able to recreate the victims' final poses.

    The plaster recreations give us a better idea of how Pompeiians expired, and even what their clothes looked like. The ash so perfectly imprinted around them that the plaster reveals some of their facial expressions at the time of their demise.

  • Hot Gases Would Cause People's Blood To Boil

    Photo: Pierre-Jacques Volaire / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    We now know that many of the victims of Vesuvius's eruption in 79 CE didn't perish from suffocation, as once thought, but instead passed almost instantly from being super-heated.

    When citizens in Herculaneum attempted to flee the volcano, they ran down to boathouses near the sea, where they were overwhelmed by the pyroclastic surges. According to research by Neel V. Patel, the extreme heat didn't melt or burn them to cinders - their blood actually boiled in their veins.

    Pier Paolo Petrone, a scientist from the Federico II University Hospital in Naples, Italy, discovered the presence of a red and black residue in the remains of the victims' skeletons. This indicated high concentrations of iron, specifically from boiling blood. The steam coming off of the boiling blood was enough to fracture bones and put intense pressure on victims' skulls.

    As horrific as this process sounds, it likely happened in an instant and was a relatively painless end. Those located farther from the eruption would be in danger of asphyxiation.

  • The Eruption Could Completely Wipe Out Naples

    If Mount Vesuvius erupted to its full potential, the destruction wouldn't be limited to the clusters of towns and villages near the cone. It could potentially take out Naples itself, the third-largest city in Italy and one of the most densely populated areas in Western Europe.

    The damage wouldn't just be cosmetic either. If historical eruptions are anything to go by, Naples could be entirely leveled.